H is for Josiah Harlan

As usual, I am again focusing on the famous, the forgotten and the misbegotten for round 19 of the popular ABC Wednesday meme. But finding suitable characters is getting harder, so apologies in advance if I miss out some of the alphabet.

Josiah HarlanAnyone who has read The Man Who Would Be King by Rudyard Kipling might think it typical of British Imperialism, but it seems that the inspiration for the story was, in fact, an American, Josiah Harlan.

Harlan was born in Chester County, Pennsylvania, in 1799, the son of a prosperous Quaker family. He was one of nine children of Joshua Harlan, a merchant broker in Philadelphia.

Harlan was a bookish child and read on all manner of subjects, from medical textbooks to botany and the classics, in particular on the life of Alexander the Great. He could read both Latin and Greek and spoke French fluently.

His mother, Sarah Hinchman, died when he was thirteen, leaving an endowment of $2,000 to his sisters, but nothing to her sons who were expected to make their own way in the world. And for the handsome, strapping, six-foot Harlan, this meant travel and adventure.

Bishop's College, Calcutta, in 1820

Bishop’s College, Calcutta, in 1820

In 1820, Harlan’s father arranged for him to embark as supercargo on a boat bound for Calcutta then Guangzhou in China, but before he left he fell in love and became engaged to marry. He never mentioned her name, but her identity was revealed in a poem he wrote, the first letters of the first fourteen lines spelling out her name – Elizabeth Swain.

The Swains were a well-to-do Philadelphia family of Dutch origin and it was falling in love that was to change Harlan’s life. It seems that Elizabeth changed her mind about marriage no sooner than he had left port and a letter from his brother finally caught up with him in Calcutta informing him that she had married someone else. Heartbroken, Harlan swore that he would never again return to America and so his adventures began.

Attack on Rangoon 1824

Attack on Rangoon 1824

In 1824, the East India Company embarked on a war in Burma and was in need of army surgeons. Despite having no formal medical training other than his study of medical text books, Harlan presented himself to the board of examination and was appointed surgeon at Calcutta hospital, before joining the army early in 1825.

The war with Burma ended with the Treaty of Yandabo in 1826 and Harlan was posted to Karnal, north of Delhi. But he wearied of the regimented life with the Company and left their service and headed for the border outpost of Ludhiana between British India and the Punjab.

Shuja Shah Durrani

Shuja Shah Durrani

His plan was to offer his services to the Maharaja of Punjab, Ranjit Singh, but along the way he encountered the exiled Afghan ruler Shuja Shah Durrani who persuaded him to join his cause of deposing the then present ruler, Dost Mohammad Khan.

Harlan travelled to Peshawar where he enlisted the support of Jabbar Khan, brother of Dost Mohammad and a potential ally before moving on to Kabul where he met Dost Mohammad himself.

Reckless though he could be, Harlan realised that is would be foolish to challenge Dost Mohammad without help which he sought from Ranjit Singh in the Punjab.

Maharaja Ranjit Singh

Maharaja Ranjit Singh

Harlan was offered a military post by the Maharaja which he declined as not being lucrative enough, so Ranjit Singh decided to put his abilities to the test by appointing him as governor of Nurpur and Jasrota, newly conquered districts on the edge of the Himalayas. He did well in the role and 1832 he was transferred to Gujrat.

It was while there that he met the British soldier and statesman, Henry Lawrence, who described Harlan as: ‘a man of considerable ability, great courage and enterprise, and judging by appearance, well cut out for partisan work.’

In 1838, Harlan had the opportunity to put his courage, enterprise and partisan abilities to the test when he led 1,400 cavalry, 1,100 infantry, 1,500 support personnel and camp followers, 2,000 horses, 400 camels and one elephant in a punitive expedition across the Hindu Kush against the Uzbek slave trader and warlord Murad Beg.

He saw himself as his hero and a modern-day Alexander. Pausing to raise the American flag at the top of the Indian Caucasus, he reached the land of the Hazara Persian-speaking people of what is now central Afghanistan, who lived in fear of the slave-traders. Harlan set about sieging the Citadel of Saighan, held by one of the slavers, and quickly reduced its walls to rubble with his artillery.

As in The Man Who Would Be King, this display of weaponry prompted other rulers to seek Harlan’s aid in settling their disputes with their neighbours. Chief among them was the Prince of Ghor, Mohammad Reffee Beg Hazara, who invited him to raise an army to expand the Hazara’s territory. In return, he offered to make Harlan and his descendants Princes of Ghor in perpetuity.

However, when he returned to Kabul he found the city in the early stage of the First Anglo-Afghan War and since he had little time for the British, and perhaps with his ambitions sated, Harlan chose to return to America.

He was treated as a national hero at home and played down his princely title saying that he considered: ‘kingdoms and principalities as of frivolous import, when set in opposition to the honourable and estimable title of American citizen.’ But he was to fall foul of the establishment when he published his memoirs in which he was hyper-critical of British imperialism and the controversy this caused meant that he would not publish any further books.

US Camel Corps in 1857

US Camel Corps in 1857

Harlan lobbied the American government to import camels for use in the western states, his motive being that they would be bought from Afghanistan and that he would be sent to negotiate. A Camel Corps was created, but the government went for the cheaper option of importing them from Africa, but the idea was dropped because the aggressive camels simply cannot co-exist with horses and cattle. The remaining camels were freed in Arizona.

His attempt to import Afghan grapes was brought to a halt with the start of the American Civil War and Harlan raised the Union 11th Pennsylvania Cavalry regiment with himself as colonel. He treated his subordinates as would have done in Afghanistan which led to his court martial and he left military service due to ill-health.

Josiah the GreatHarlan died of tuberculosis in San Fransisco in 1871, having practised there as a doctor. His was buried in the now defunct Laurel Hill Cemetery, but his remains were moved and his gravesite is unknown.

The question is, did Harlan truly inspire Kipling to write The Man Who Would Be King? Harlan was a Freemason, as was Kipling who based his tale on what he was told of the former’s exploits while he was working as a young journalist in India. And according to Ben Macintyre’s book (right) Harlan’s adventures would certainly have passed into Masonic folklore, so it seems highly likely that they gave him at least the bones of his story.

Harlan married Elizabeth Baker in 1849. The couple had a daughter, Sarah, and an interesting footnote is that horror movie actor Scott Reiniger, as Harlan’s great-great-great grandson, might one day make a claim to be the rightful Prince of Ghor. And if and when he does, that may make another ABC Wednesday story for me!

Nobody’s prefect. If you find any spelling mistakes or other errors in this post, please let me know by highlighting the text and pressing Ctrl+Enter.

6 comments… Add yours
  • Hildred Finch 31st August 2016

    Very interesting, – what exciting lives some people lead, and what amaxing abilities they must have to do so….

  • leslie 31st August 2016

    I just love and look forward to your blogs each week to see what interesting character you bring to us. Good one this time, as usual.

    abcw team

  • Melody Steenkamp 31st August 2016

    And another person you introduce to me.. with a very intriguing lifestory…loved reading it. I agree also with what Leslie wrote.

    Have a nice ABC-day / – week
    ♫ M e l ☺ d y ♫ (ABC-team)

  • Joy 31st August 2016

    I love the idea of him being appointed surgeon just from his book learning, not of course if I was on the operating table.

  • Roger O Green 31st August 2016

    all sorts of obscure things you come across!

  • Su-sieee! Mac 2nd September 2016

    Your storytelling style made Harlan quite an interesting fellow. Maybe I’ll attempt to watch the movie again. Feel asleep in it. I wonder if they may have moved his remains to Colma, south of San Francisco.


Your email will not be published on this site, but note that this and any other personal data you choose to share is stored here. Please see the Privacy Policy for more information.

Spelling error report

The following text will be sent to our editors: